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The Daily Debate - 1/15/2014

By Robert Tracinski

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January 15, 2014

1. The Fish-Givers

2. Dispatches

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1. The Fish-Givers

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the State of the Union address in which Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty." So Derek Thompson asks the obvious question: "Why aren't we winning?"

"The 'war on poverty' turns 50 this week. Judging by the official rate, which has only edged down from 19 percent to 15 percent in that time, poverty is winning the war. Why?"

Major Garrett states the issue more precisely.

"America has spent $20.7 trillion on the War on Poverty—defined as means-tested government assistance to the poor. This includes housing, food, Medicaid, cash assistance, Head Start, and tax breaks like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Roughly one in three Americans receives some form of means-tested poverty assistance. And, yes, that's trillion. With a 'T.'

"The statistic comes from Robert Rector, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation, who argues the War on Poverty has not changed the statistical level of poverty but has changed the circumstances of being poor. By that, Rector means that the impoverished in America have creature comforts—air conditioning, TV, cable or satellite hookups, and computers—the poor in other countries can only dream of.

"But Rector argues the only way to judge the War on Poverty is by the standard Johnson set forth—to improve self-sufficiency.

"'We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls,' Johnson said upon signing the Economic Opportunity Act. 'We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles. Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.'"

The best way to understand this is by reference to the old expression: "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for life." Johnson assured us that he wanted to turn the poor into fisherman, not merely give them fish. Looking at the results 50 years later, there are grounds for doubt about the sincerity of this assurance, either on the part of Johnson or on the part of those who were in charge of implementing his War on Poverty.

But there is less and less doubt about the views of today's supporters of the poverty establishment. Judging from the defenses offered last week, most of them have shifted their goal firmly to the side of fish-giving.

The most widely cited argument in favor of the War on Poverty is an article by Sharon Parrott that offers the following measure for the "success" of the welfare state.

"Today's safety net—which includes important programs and improvements both from the Johnson era and thereafter—cuts poverty nearly in half. In 2012, it kept 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty, according to the Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). If government benefits are excluded, today's poverty rate would be 29 percent under the SPM; with those benefits, the rate is 16 percent."

Notice what she is talking about. She argues that government programs have dramatically cut the rate of poverty, not by increasing the income individuals earn working in the private economy, but by filling in the lack of income with government benefits. They have cut poverty by giving men fish, not by teaching them to fish.

Paul Krugman, who cites Parrott's figures, makes this implication clear.

"It's true that the standard measure of poverty hasn't fallen much. But this measure doesn't include the value of crucial public programs like food stamps and the earned-income tax credit. Once these programs are taken into account, the data show a significant decline in poverty, and a much larger decline in extreme poverty. Other evidence also points to a big improvement in the lives of America's poor: lower-income Americans are much healthier and better-nourished than they were in the 1960s."

As I've pointed out elsewhere, this does not reduce poverty. It merely alleviates its symptoms. And that is all that the "progressive" left is aiming for these days. In fact, the latest progressive idea is a guaranteed minimum income, which would "end" poverty simply by giving people fistfuls of cash that they didn't earn and making them more dependent on government than ever.

As I said, this certainly takes some of the sting out of being poor. As LBJ put it, it "makes the poor more secure in their poverty." That has now become the big test of "compassion" for those on the left. If the urgent task of the War on Poverty is to give a man a fish, then it makes sense to caterwaul about the "gratuitous inhumanity" of denying the poor their daily ration.

But none of this does anything to "help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity." Let's go back to Derek Thompson, who lays out some good data on the real cause of poverty.

"[T]he pesky poverty rate isn't just a measure of low wages. It's sticky high partly because the government's best efforts to get cash to working families have been offset by the fact that Americans are—for a variety of reasons—working less....

"[G]overnment policies have been more effective at helping families escape poverty than we think. Indeed, one study found the growth of government benefits since 1967 has cut an alternative measure of poverty by 40 percent. But it's more precise to say that Washington has been effective at helping working, two-parent families escape from poverty. The problem is that there are fewer people working and fewer two-parent families. Both the great recession and the surge of single-[parent] households have made it harder for people, today, to work full-time. And families cobbling together a life from part-time gigs, or unemployment, are much more likely to dip into poverty."

There are those who might think that it is a greater favor to the poor to enable them to rise by their own effort, by taking the government's foot off the economy's neck and enabling them to get jobs and support themselves, to offer them "opportunity and not doles." Which also turns out to be much truer to what the War on Poverty originally claimed it was going to do.

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2. Dispatches

Leftists vilify another interracial family. Their pose as morally superior "progressives" on the issue of race is over. It's just over.

Late-night talk show hosts have begun mocking ObamaCare.

George Will provides a thorough guide to the Supreme Court hearings on the constitutionality of President Obama's faux recess appointments.

A television reviewer provides an ominous description of the current state of highbrow "prestige" television: "[W]e deal all the time with despicableness because our best and favorite TV series are nearly always built around flawed, often very unlikable people—mostly men—who make terrible choices and suffer from a provocative degree of narcissism. Despicableness is seen as a sure way to hook us in. I'd love to start watching a few shows about intensely likable people, but I can hardly think of any." I can, but I think it's very significant that he can't.

Meet the best-dressed men in Central Africa.

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—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

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Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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